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It was all most confusing. After ignoring calls from opposition parties for a full independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic for more than a year, Boris Johnson is now a whole-hearted enthusiast for just such a formal process.
So much so, that less than a day after he had surprised both the Commons and himself by agreeing to an inquiry after an intervention by Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, the prime minister was back in the chamber to give a statement on what form the inquiry might take and when it might start. You could be forgiven for thinking that Johnson is terrified of what hand grenades Dominic Cummings might lob when he comes before the science and health joint select committee later this month, and is engaged in a damage limitation exercise by trying to make it look as if he has nothing to hide.
This was to be a thorough, judge-led, independent inquiry, said Johnson. One that could only start in spring next year because he didn’t want anyone to be distracted from their day jobs when there could well be a fourth wave next winter; suddenly the irreversibility of the irreversible roadmap out of lockdown wasn’t sounding quite so reassuring. And by starting next spring, he didn’t want anyone to think that the inquiry would be starting to take evidence then. Rather it would just be beginning to buy the right stationery and office furniture. Which could take six months or so.
But when the inquiry was properly up and running, the most important thing was that it should convene for as long as possible. Anything under two years would be a woeful dereliction of duty and with any luck it could run for four or five years before publishing a report. That way Johnson could call a general election long before any damning conclusions were reached. Though were that to happen it would of course just be a fortunate coincidence. One of those lucky breaks.
As always, Johnson was economical with the truth – along with the Cummings and general election angles, he didn’t see fit to mention that Whitehall had already done a review into the handling of the pandemic: presumably because its findings made tough reading for the government – but this was about as close as he can get to being straightforward. For once, there was no bluster or cheap point-scoring. Only the sincerity of a man, best known for breaking his promises, begging to be believed just this once.
Keir Starmer didn’t appear that certain about how best to respond to this latest Boris iteration. He knew better than to trust Johnson’s motives but it was hard to be too churlish when the prime minister had finally delivered on something Labour and all the opposition parties had been calling for. So he chose to play it straight, making sure both that the Covid bereavement groups would have a say in the make-up and remit of the inquiry, and that the chair and members of the inquiry would be in place before next spring. He wouldn’t have put it past Boris to not get round to this before next spring. Hell, the man couldn’t be trusted to pay off his credit card debts on time.
But Johnson insisted everything was on the level. He would definitely be getting round to meeting bereaved families – it had just been one of those things, an oversight, that he hadn’t met them up till now. And of course the chair and the rest of the inquiry team would be named by next spring.
“Our timing is the right timing,” he said. By which he meant there was more chance of the public being tolerant of five missed Cobra meetings, the massacre in care homes, a failure to take the pandemic seriously at the start, the lack of PPE, contracts to Tory donors with no track record in delivering health supplies, the abject failure of Dido Harding’s track and trace, and being too late to introduce lockdowns on three separate occasions, the longer the inquiry went on. Indeed people might even be persuaded to celebrate the success of the vaccine rollout and ignore the offences on the charge sheet.
Starmer wasn’t the only person to be taken aback by this new helpful Boris. Both Labour’s Emma Hardy and Steve McCabe appeared astonished when he invited them to write personally to him for help in sorting out a constituent’s problem. Normally Johnson looks at this kind of engagement with the public as well beneath him. Now he couldn’t do enough for the little people.
Soon MPs from all sides were chipping in with their own pet issues, realising they were certain to get a more than fair hearing. So much so that by the end there was almost nothing which Boris was not prepared to include in the inquiry’s terms of reference. The government’s handling of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19? Why not go back to the Great Plague of 1665? Vitally important to see if the right lessons had been learned at the time. Anything to increase the inquiry’s bandwidth.
Just about the only thing that Labour didn’t bring up was the fire and rehire tactics of some firms during the pandemic. There again, that was probably just as well, given the Labour reshuffle the previous weekend.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: A Covid inquiry is essential after all, says Boris – as long as it takes years | John Crace